I’ve been following the debate on the reintroduction of compulsory curriculum inclusions such as religion and Australian colonial/early 20th century history into all Australian schools. I have also been appalled (at the hubris contained) and amused (by the satirical appropriation and amazon comments) in/of/on South Australian Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi’s conservative manifesto, The Conservative Revolution. My thinking cap has been firmly planted on my head and I have formulated some opinions on these issues that must be tackled as a whole. Before launching into these opinions, I feel obliged to state clearly that they are my own, and that I am not a mouthpiece for any kind of political or irreligious organization. Any resemblance between things I state here and facts might be intentional, and it is my intention to declare any suppositions, assumptions and ironic aphorisms as what they are. If I forget to do so, please accept my apologies in advance. Let’s start with the rise in public profile of institutional conservatism in the last fifteen years and its relationship with news media. It is demonstrably true that Australia’s mass media industry has become increasingly owned by a small oligarchy of multi-billionaires, with a relatively low percentage of the available public shares being traded at any given point of time – the remainder being tightly held by said oligarchs (Murdochs, Kerry Stokes, Bruce Gordon, the Bauer family and Gina Rinehart) or investment trusts. Investment trusts are always going to vote for stability over change – it’s their remit, after all. Keep the cash flowing, and avoid risk like the plague. The oligarchs, however, all have their own agendas:
- The Bauers are somewhat enigmatic – a wealthy multi-generational German publishing family that now owns what used to be Australian Consolidated Press. The Bauers are very private in general, so there’s no point really talking about their agenda other than to suggest that they are most likely to be more interested in quality and earnings than in doing anything groundshakingly innovative.
- Lachlan Murdoch’s agenda in the television arena is basically going to be to show his dad that he knows what he’s doing and can turn a buck under his own steam.
- Rupert Murdoch’s agenda in the print press arena is primarily about money, but he has a conservative streak that he doesn’t mind talking about, especially when it comes to governments interfering in the interests of big business. There have been strong rumours in the past regarding editorial interference and choices to employ conservative commentators as opinion editors. His links to the pro-business Liberal Party via donations to the IPA are well documented, and his public antipathy for Kevin Rudd is on record.
- Gina Rinehart’s agenda is also clearly documented. She wants an editorial platform from which she can voice dissent over public policies that have the potential to harm her business interests. She is a climate-change denier and has sponsored climate-change skeptic Ian Plimer’s speaking tours. She is about what helps Gina Rinehart first and foremost, and what constitutes responsible action in the public interest a distant second.
- Kerry Stokes is a confounding riddle, wrapped in a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma. His roots were decidedly working class (unlike the Packers, Murdochs or Gina Rinehart). He grew up poor and his rise to Australia’s rich list has always been a result of driving hard bargains, but also ones with a double win. He is a very private individual, and keeps his opinions to himself. He is quoted as having said something along the lines of “I don’t believe I have power, which is just as well – otherwise I might be tempted to wield it.” I have no idea what he thinks about climate-change – he has interests in the mining equipment sector, and significant land holdings; along with his media interests. However, I suspect he gives his editors-in-chief the freedom to make their own choices – as long as they are profitable.
So what does this mean for ordinary Australians? Here’s my stab at an answer. Australian media outlets are operated for three reasons. Depending on the media group under discussion, the priority of those reasons may change. In my opinion, those raisons d’être are as follows:
- Return profits to shareholders (a fundamental requirement for any company operating under the Australian Companies Code)
- Operate in the public trust (important when media interests are so tightly concentrated in this country)
- Provide owners with a soap-box from which they can have their opinions aired in credible terms. (This is particularly true in the case of Ten and News Corp holdings, and probably barely true at all in the case of Seven – although there have been minor exceptions when coverage might jeopardize a Stokes deal in progress)
If we were to assume that the above thesis is correct, then there are a number of social issues and impacts that need to be considered. Representative democracy works on the assumption that every enfranchised elector has an informed opinion. In Australia, we rely on our news media outlets to inform us about the issues that will help us to make choices about who will represent us in our state and federal parliaments. This is why operating in the public trust is absolutely critical. When owner-driven bias or commercial concerns trump public interest in the delivery of news reportage, democracy is ill-served and the health of our nationhood is put to the test. When we respond to such blatant manipulation by applying critical thinking skills to call bullshit and go elsewhere for our answers, it hurts ratings and therefore shareholder dividends. Companies are then effectively compelled by the Companies Code to correct their approach and swing back into line with something closer to truthful reporting. If, however, we do not have such critical thinking skills and simply soak up the personal opinions of media owners presented under the banner of “informed debate”, then we are denied the opportunity to provide sufficient feedback to correct the course our democracy is taking. It is my opinion that the majority of editors-in-chief in our country do their best to present balanced and informed current affairs coverage. However, sometimes they do get over-ridden, and sometimes important issues don’t get the coverage they deserve because of their inherent lack of “sexiness” and corresponding ratings performance. Without wanting to discuss corrective legislative frameworks to deal with these issues, I do want to address how this ties into the current debate over national curriculum content. For starters, I am not entirely convinced that our current education system is equipping students with the intellectual literacy to consume information from mass media with the same degree of criticality as that of people of my generation. As an IT professional who occasionally gets to interact with millennials in a mentoring role, I have come to some conclusions about their education as a whole. In general, they are passably literate (although not as literate as I’d like), and middlingly numerate (I see definite room for improvement) although they do tend to have a natural capacity for algorithmic thinking. I think this ability to systematize their thinking provides them with the ability to sample information from many different sources and synthesize something approaching a full picture of an issue. However, I think this sampling is also a core weakness in the generation that will supplant my own at the nation’s electoral wheelhouse. If 20 sample news-bites are all remixed versions based on the same source opinion with no facts to support them, then really, all they’re digesting is a single opinion. And what’s more, they have the impression that the original opinion is by virtue of its multiple re-mixings mean that they are facts. This is not the kind of critical thinking that should be informing future electors. Millennials are credulous to the point of being a little dense. The look of horror when you show them a Snopes.com article about something they have assumed to be based in fact is both satisfying (because you can now see them starting to think critically for themselves) and disturbing (because this is the first time they’ve done so). Let’s not only blame the education system. Let’s also give some credit to the parents whose primary responsibility once the take on the burden of parenthood is to do it as well as they can. We also need to look at how we have taught our children to view authority and the media. Authority figures should be respected, but also unafraid to defend their perspectives with a rational argument. The sophistication of rhetoric required to address questions can be proportional to the age of the questioner, but by the end of primary school, children should be aware that the mass media they consume should be subject to critical inquiry at all times. What we should not be doing (sorry Christopher and Cory) is teaching children that our self-entitled white Western-European post-colonial Judeo-Christian point of view is the only one that should be considered. Likewise, if we are going to offer students perspectives on religion, that should include all religions, and religion should be investigated as a social construct, not a source of authority that is beyond question. I could get behind a subject along the lines of “Philosophy, Faith, Culture and Society” taught to students from year 10 and up – whose subject matter included the basic questions that led to the founding of religious faiths, the comparison of major world religions, the concept of the social contract (along with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and other core ethical concepts) and a discussion on how culture bleeds into religion and politics (and vice versa). I would be horrified to learn that Kevin Donnelly’s suggested curriculum inclusions would be targeted at children who do not yet have the critical thinking and analysis skills to make up their own minds as to what religious principles they chose to take into their own life. Religious opinions that vilify or cast aspersions on a sector of society – be that on racial, religious, ethnic, age-based, sexuality-based or gender-based grounds – should be clearly defined as appropriate for school aged children. We should have specific legislation that carries significant penalties for doing so, so as not to repeat the dire lessons learnt when some bad eggs laid the whole school chaplaincy program under a cloud of suspicion of a breach of the public trust. Personally, I would rather have seen more professional school counsellors employed rather than chaplains, but if forced to play that hand, employing evangelical-types trained in proszelitising children is not a choice that I could ever endorse a school principal for making. To me, a child’s mind is a precious ball of opportunity that needs to be nurtured and guided through learning experiences that leave them fully qualified to make the most informed, effective and self-affirming choices possible. Our education system (and their parents, and their extended learning networks) should be providing information that enhances childrens’ potential, rather than pushing them into intellectual cul-de-sacs from which they can be more easily governed by fear and institutional bullying tactics. I’m not advocating anarchy, but I am advocating an intellectual approach to education that is free of religious indoctrination. Likewise, glorifying Australia’s colonial and post-colonial history from an entitled Western-European colonial perspective is equally odious. It brings with it the potential to undermine modern (and post-modern) thinking about multiculturalism and pluralism, and has the potential to create a false nostalgia for an age that was horrible for anyone who wasn’t male, white and Christian. I doubt that Christopher Pyne is advocating having teachers look into the practices of law-makers, government officials, priests and law-men whose practices of removing indigenous Australian children from their birth families. I doubt that the honourable member for Sturt is particularly keen to see the trials and tribulations of the labour union or women’s suffrage movements laid out for the scorn of students who have been taught the skills required to put those events into not just historical, but ethical and humanist context. If Christopher can cope with a warts and all approach, then bring it on. But if he can’t – he should can his bleating about Australia’s mythical “Golden Age” and go read some primary accounts of those affected by crippling poverty, cultural dispossession and disenfranchisement by the people I suspect Christopher wants to glorify. Finally – a quick shout out (no more, as he deserves less) to Cory Bernardi. My most sardonic thanks! You have succeeded in dragging Australian public discourse down to a new low with your horrid pamphlet. The right to free speech is important, as without diversity of opinions there can be no critical thinking. However, the right to speak freely without consequence is not even protected by the USA’s libertarian constitution. I don’t know how you cope with the smell having your head so far up your own rectum, especially given how nasty the ordure spilling forth from your manifesto must smell to anyone with even the very slight critical thinking skills that you have put on display. Please – withdraw this offal from sale and take a good hard look at why you hate yourself so much. A work of such loathing for anything that isn’t you can only come from a deep-seated fear that your reprehensible opinions are as suspect as the rest of us think they are. As a South Australian centre-right elector, your very pre-selection for the last election has made me immensely disappointed with the Liberal Party, and the choice to run you in number one spot for the Senate makes me think that something in the organization must be truly broken. Please see a good therapist and work on your self-awareness before opening your mouth in public again. I now return you to the delightful sound of crickets. Hopefully I’ll have more to say before another three months rolls by!